Over the last year I’ve written a series of editorials in RailStaff which voice the views of my peers ─ young professionals in rail, and the future leaders of our industry. We’ve discussed topics ranging from changing work habits caused by the pandemic to the emerging ‘people and culture’ elements of the emerging Great British Railways (GBR).
In April I will step down as Chairman of Young Rail Professionals (YRP). After four happy years as a director of the company, I’ll be handing over the leadership to a new enthusiastic volunteer. I’ve been privileged to hold this office and learned an awful lot – it’s only fitting that my final editorial is a reflection of my first seven years in rail as I close the curtains on being a young rail professional.
I read Integrated Mechanical and Electronic Engineering at Bath University and loved it. Back in 2009, only two UK universities ran such a course, and my hybrid allegiance left my peers and I somewhat caught between the historically opposed mechanical and electrical engineering departments. However, ubiquity prevailed ─ no modern mechanical system exists without some sort of electronic control ─ and this focus on integration of disciplines proved to be a very useful skillset when I joined the rail industry.
In fact, my whole rail career has the theme of integration at its core. I started as a systems engineer with WSP UK Ltd working in systems development and integration teams on a variety of major upgrades including the Great Western Route Modernisation (GWRM, GWEP, GWRU anyone?) and the Brighton Mainline Upgrade Programme. I quickly learned that if you want to get anything done on the railways you have to coordinate and cajole a huge variety of partners and stakeholders into building a sum of technical and operational change. Engineering is just the ‘stuff’ – how about the people, processes, and comms?
Layer on top a client with long-term policy objectives and a demanding Treasury and Accountant that regularly undervalue the rail industry and these programmes become incredibly challenging to deliver. Keeping everyone up to speed is challenging enough, let alone driving change through each organisation. My job was to connect the dots and keep these multi-billion-pound programmes on the rails. It was during this period that I learned about YRP, an organisation which offers free development and networking events, potential for leadership, and promotes opportunities to introduce young(er) people to our brilliant industry. Hungry to learn more and to accelerate my career, I joined up without hesitation.
With four years’ experience and having seen major rail enhancements of every flavour from almost every angle, it’s perhaps not surprising that in 2017 the Department for Transport recruited me into their Rail Strategy team. I led a policy team attempting to improve the value of rail investment by using private financing and supply chain capability to reduce complexity and align incentivisation. Everyone who wants to make big changes in this industry should do a stint in government if the opportunity arises – not only is the learning critical, but the Civil Service is an excellent employer. You’ll work with some exceptionally brilliant people and some Ministers too.
By this point I was fully bought in to the value of YRP and had progressed from attending events to running the YRP outreach programme for universities, then called Routes into Rail University Presentations Programme. In a stroke of marketing genius, I rebranded it ‘Into Rail’, thus saving everyone plenty of breath, and the programme has since evolved to also incorporate YRP’s school and infant outreach and education elements. I learned that every time I gave my time to volunteer with YRP I would make a new contact, learn something about the industry I’ve since found essential knowledge, and develop my professional portfolio – all of which I have relied on heavily to progress my career and salary potential. So, when the then YRP Chairman invited me to stand for National Treasurer, I leapt at the chance.
As much as I enjoyed wrangling with the Westminster politico over industry policy, my heart yearned for project experience. What better project to take on than Europe’s largest construction project and Britain’s first new mainline in well over a century? Everything about High Speed Two is impressive, from its vast workforce and supply chain network to its portfolio of engineering feats and operational ambitions. To be a part of the next generation high speed network is a thrill.
I lead the sponsor team for Euston Station, the London terminus of the HS2 network. Ten underground platforms fed by London’s multiple transport networks dispatching trains to the midlands and north of England for the next 100 years ─ the station will be an epic example of integrating passenger interchange design with local regeneration and development. The journey hasn’t been easy – guiding the client through difficult decisions and trade-offs in this stakeholder-crowded environment (both metaphorically and literally) – but to have sponsored this national asset will be one of the great honours of my career.
For two of the three years I’ve been with HS2, I’ve chaired YRP. I would characterise my leadership of YRP by highlighting my focus on ‘business first’ from the national leadership, while promoting devolution of delivery and self-determination to our eight fantastic regions. I have worked with some brilliant young volunteers and leaders up and down the country and forged lasting corporate relationships that will see YRP is well supported for years to come. I am so grateful to everyone who I have had the pleasure to lead for their input, patience, and grace. I’ve learned as I’ve gone along – and really that summarises the best of YRP and GB rail – our shared commitment to developing the next generation of young rail professionals into the future leaders of our industry.
Lead photo – HS2’s Colne Valley Western Slopes project will provide 127 hectares of wood pasture, restored wetlands and native grassland. Photo credit: HS2 Ltd